160 North Carolina Patients Possibly Exposed to Staph Infection Due to Unsterile Surgical Instruments

Officials at a North Carolina hospital say about 160 patients may have been exposed to staph infection because surgical instruments weren't properly sterilized.

Officials at Cape Fear Valley Medical Center said chances of getting an infection are low and that no infection had been reported, The Fayetteville Observer reported Thursday.

Surgical instruments used on patients Oct. 5-7 were cleaned, disinfected and packaged but hadn't been sterilized with steam, said chief medical officer Dr. Eugene Wright.

Wright said the instruments were believed free of blood borne diseases like HIV and Hepatitis B and C.

Officials also said surgical patients routinely get antibiotics.

Dr. Chuck Chima, physician adviser to infection control at the hospital, said steam sterilization is the third step of the disinfection process and without it the instruments could be contaminated with bacteria from the hands of employees.

"Most of the (cleaning) process had gone through," Chima said. "The (steam sterilization) is sort of an insurance."

Symptoms of staph infection include redness, swelling, pain and warmth at the surgical site as well as fever and drainage from the surgical area, swollen glands and a red streak from the infection site.

Chima said bacteria could cause regular staph infections, but not Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus, or MRSA, a potentially fatal infection.

Wright said the hospital discovered the problem Oct. 6 when a technician noticed that an instrument package hadn't been steamed. Packages have chemical indicators that show whether they have been exposed to steam.

Officials are investigating the problem, Wright said.

The hospital also has added steps to the sterilization process to make sure all instruments are steamed, he said.